Level Design: Transcend

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Transcend is a game I worked on about teleporting swordsmen versus gunners with grappling hooks. It was a college project, and since then I rebranded it as Mark of Mephisto. There were some interesting level design decisions I made back when it was in college, and I can’t bring them into the rebranded game because they involved a little bit of other people’s work. Still, at least I can write about how I did the level design.

The idea was that Transcend would be a multiplayer action narrative arena: people would fight against each other online, but the story would change as they fought, as opposed to standard CoD-style deathmatch battles. Here’s the description that I wrote for Mark of Mephisto, which was supposed to use the same system:

Mark of Mephisto is presented as a collection of episodic scenarios, which represent pieces of Frostfall’s story at various points in time. Scenarios are PvP matches where player’s victories and losses affect their current situation, changing their objectives or their alliances depending on the story.

All scenarios are composed of a series of narrative acts. Each act is one piece of the scenario’s larger conflict, and the decisions players make here will impact what happens in subsequent acts. In a narrative act, all teams are formed and given objectives to fulfill depending on the story context of the scenario. Players then fight against each other as they strive to fulfill their objectives.

An act ends when a team fulfills their objective. When an act ends, the next act is decided based on the results of the previous one. Act transitions are meant to change the narrative flow of the scenario by changing team objectives. Characters may even end up switching allegiances during an act transition, joining a new team for the next act.

Think of a scenario as a choose-your-own-adventure book, where the “choices” are made through PvP combat. For example, one act might pit a team of Mageknights against a team of Mavericks in a deathmatch battle to establish control over a sector of the city. If the Mageknights win, the act changes and branches in a new direction: perhaps the Mavericks need to retreat, and the Mageknights need to prevent them from getting away. Or, if the Mavericks won the initial deathmatch, the tides turn, and this time the Mageknights are running away and the Mavericks are pursuing. Act transitions are seamless and happen through the same level, which is designed to change depending on the outcome of the battle.

Scenarios have a small cast of characters that players select before entering the battle. You play as your selected character from start to finish, like a match in a MOBA. Each character has a motivation going into the conflict, and that may influence what happens to the character as the scenario progresses through its act structure. These characters’s abilities will fall under the overarching classes in the game: for example, perhaps there is a Mageknight named Allen, and another Mageknight named Bob. They both play as standard Mageknights, but they will be differentiated by their perspectives in the scenario’s narrative.

Each scenario is self-contained and written as a whole branching narrative. The idea is not to present a linear story, but rather to reveal many assorted pieces that tie together into a unified theme. Scenarios will be full stories with beginnings, middles, and endings, but Frostfall’s overarching story is much larger. A scenario may be set at any time or place within the crumbling city’s history.”

With this, we can see many interesting level design challenges. A level needs to be able to accommodate multiple different objectives. It also needs to present a narrative progression as players move through the different acts. The level needs to balance itself so that one side doesn’t just get a massive bonus thanks to a favorable level. And I can’t count on a strict round system to reset players after they complete their objective, so traditional de_dust2 chokepoint and pathing design doesn’t apply.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Basic Context

In level design, it’s a good idea to first get a good grasp of what exactly characters do, and how they move around. In Transcend, they move like a 2D platformer: run left and right, jump, double jump, wall slide, wall jump. But then, each character type has a special movement ability that’s virtually unconditional. Mageknights can teleport through small walls, and Mavericks can grapple to pull themselves through the environment. You can play around with a basic sandbox for character controls here.

The scenario that I designed back when this project was still in school focuses on a pair of Mageknights who are hired to deliver a package into the inner city, and a pair of Mavericks try to stop them. Do they make it to the city, or do the Mavericks successfully intervene?

Every time the act changes, the level changes as well. Level geometry will change, and some checkpoint locations will change as well. This is most visible in the transition between Act 0 and Act 02, where all the gates close shut and alternative pathways start opening so the rest of the level is still accessible even with the gates closed. However, every act needs to be able to disable the level and enable a new one designed specifically for that act.

Here, I use a special kind of notation. Act 0 is the first act, which is always a given because it’s where the players start. Act 01 is the second act if the Mageknights win, and Act 02 is the second act if the Mavericks win. Likewise, you would branch out to Act 012, or Act 021 (Mageknights win and then Mavericks win, and vice versa respectively) to denote the third act. Finally, I use an x when a team’s victory doesn’t matter. In this scenario, the third act always ends up in a deathmatch, but it plays out in a different area depending on previous acts, so the third acts are Act 01x and 02x.

DELIVERY0

And that’s it. One giant level, spread out across multiple acts for different objectives. Now the question is… what does this map even mean? Well, I’ve got you covered.

Overall Motifs

ONEWAY

Extremely narrow passageways (1 square wide) are rare and are intended to act as one-way gates. It is a trivial matter to drop through a narrow vertical passageway, but it is very difficult to travel back up through it. This only happens at the end of the Maverick introductory area right before they jump into Act 0’s action, and that area is meant to be inaccessible from that point onward.

STAIRS

I use stair formations on sharp corners for the purpose of directing players in the direction I want them to go. Even though all environment collisions are axis-aligned bounding boxes, I refer to “sharp corners” not by their 90 degree angle (because every angle is 90 degrees) but rather by how long the lines making up the angle are. Corners are points that need to direct players so they know which direction is forward. In general, the scenario progresses from left to right and down to up, but there are times when characters will backtrack through a level. The corners are meant to be seen in passing as characters speed through, like turn signs in a racing game.

DESCENT

Descents are sprinkled throughout the levels as catchup mechanisms. In racing games, it is desirable for players to have close, intense matches, but often times if one player is better than the other then they will just speed away and leave the other player so far behind they can’t even be seen anymore, which results in a less engaging match for both the winner and the loser. Often times, racing games will implement rubberbanding mechanics to offset this problem: losing players will often have their speed parameters increased in game so they have a mechanical numerical advantage, which then becomes lost if they pull ahead. Transcend cannot do this, so descents are used as a pseudo-rubberband instead. The idea is that there are relatively few ways to speed up a descent, so all characters should theoretically pass through the descent at the same speed. Any other type of area presents opportunities for characters  to pull ahead of others, but descents act like highway checkpoints to throttle everyone.

A character will respawn at a checkpoint they are assigned to when they die. When they pass through a checkpoint trigger, they will be assigned to its corresponding checkpoint. Checkpoint triggers are indicated by transparent green boxes. The checkpoints that correspond to each trigger are solid green boxes, and the connections are indicated by transparent green lines.

Mageknight/Maverick Balance

Areas can be divided up into two categories: rooms and corridors. These refer to the overarching quadrilateral shapes that block out each level. Rooms are more squareish, and corridors are more rectangular. Then, each of these areas can be further subdivided into two styles of level geometry placement: parallels and bends. Finally, level geometry placement can either be dense or sparse.

CORRIDORPARALLEL

This vertical corridor is fairly densely populated with parallels thin enough for Mageknights to teleport through.

ROOMBEND

This room uses a slight mix of parallels and bends, but predominantly focuses on bends. Level geometry is slightly sparser, because there are more open areas.

In general, rooms favor Mageknights, and corridors favor Mavericks. Mageknights benefit from having multiple angles to attack from that they can switch between at will. Mavericks prefer to face their opponents directly and know where they’re attacking from.

In general, parallels favor Mageknights, and bends favor Mavericks. Mageknights can use parallels to their advantage to continue moving towards their objective no matter what path they take. Mavericks can grapple to bend protrusions to cover ground without needing to use momentum or swinging.

In general, dense geometry placement favors Mageknights, and sparse geometry placement favors Mavericks. Mageknights can teleport through many level assets that may otherwise trap a non-teleporting character. Mavericks benefit greatly from having clear lines of sight for both grappling and shooting.

Some rare sections of the levels do not follow this three-part paradigm, but the bulk of the playing area can be divided up and thought of in these ways. If you score each piece of the level by rooms/corridors, parallels/bends, and density/scarcity, you can graph a basic outline for which team has a stronger presence in that specific area.

The most obvious variables that get in the way of this classification system are individual player skill and team coordination. Perhaps a certain player is extraordinarily skilled with Mavericks, even in densely populated rooms (or perhaps it is a player who has mastered short-range grapple swings). Team battles with 1v2 or 2v2 situations become even more complex to balance.

Act Transitions

Every act has its own level. Thematically, this represents how the city crumbles and changes as a result of the characters fighting each other. Mechanically, this is used to tweak levels slightly to suit new objectives. Some parts of level geometry will change for an act transition, but most notably, checkpoints and checkpoint triggers will also change.

When the act changes, the next act will inherently favor the losing team. However, this does not apply to the third acts (011, 012, 021, and 022, otherwise known as 01x and 02x) because the third acts are all deathmatches. These acts will still favor the side that they did before: 01x favors Mavericks, and 02x favors Mageknights. The level geometry will change slightly to alleviate some of this balance, but it will probably not work to a noticeable degree.

Checkpoints are customized for every act. The checkpoints are arranged directionally: you will always respawn at a previous position, and you will rarely ever respawn at a position further ahead in the level than you were when you died. If an act changes and the characters need to backtrack through the same level, this will be reflected with updated checkpoint triggers and respawn locations.

Acts have self-contained arcs that are meant to create close gameplay situations within each act. Optimally, every transition should be a hard-fought battle. Each act begins by favoring one side, but as the characters progress forward, each piece of the level starts tilting towards the other side, culminating in a final standoff designed to give the other side a strong advantage. Thus, each act is balanced to progress quickly for one side at the beginning, but slow down to an uncertain halt as both sides near the end of the act.

Act 0: Escape From The Mines

 

DELIVERY0

Act 0: Mageknights need to pass through the final gate. Mavericks win if time runs out.

The battle starts out to the left, and ends if the Mageknight team reaches the halfway point in the middle of the map, past the large vertical column. In the lore, the Mageknights are traveling through the illegal tunnels to get to the main city, and the Mavericks are trying to intercept.

Act 0 serves as an extremely brief introduction and teaches both Mageknights and Mavericks how to navigate and walljump in controlled environments before pitting them together. The beginning of Act 0 is the only place where the Mageknights and Mavericks are separated. This act is meant to be skewed towards Mageknights in the beginning, but skewed towards Mavericks towards the end.

ACT0MAGEKNIGHT

This area is meant to force Mageknights to get used to the walljumping mechanic, while also allowing them to pass through the area quickly if they choose to teleport through the horizontal ledge outcroppings.

ACT0MAVERICK

The Maverick area, on the other hand, is much shorter. Mavericks are meant to reach the first point of contact more quickly, because they are the defenders. However, even though they have the home advantage, the combat area is still skewed towards Mageknights.

ROOMBEND

This is the first area where Mageknights and Mavericks will get together and start fighting against each other. The top area is an open experimental zone for the characters to test the waters of PvP, whereas the bottom half is more tactical and focuses on movement. In order to facilitate this, the checkpoint is located on a ledge leading straight to the top area, where characters are probably fighting.

Mageknights need to open the gates to fulfill their objective. Gates are the large solid grey boxes. These gates can be opened by striking their corresponding cranks, which are small solid grey boxes. They are connected to their corresponding gates with transparent grey lines.

The first area also needs to serve as an introduction to gates and cranks. The centermost crank is designed to be at a pivot point for combat, meaning that it will inevitably be hit in the crossfire. Even if the players don’t know how to operate the gates and cranks, they need to see that something happens when the centermost crank is activated in the crossfire.

Once the first crank is activated as a precedent, the characters need to take action against the other cranks. The top right crank is easy to access but exists within the heavy-PvP area. However, the bottom left crank can be activated quickly and easily if a character simply drops down to that level. Each of these two cranks demands a different kind of skill to control: direct combat versus navigation and area control. It is difficult for a character on the bottom to transition up to the top: there are only two easily accessible paths up (left and center), but characters on the top can control both of those chokepoints and also slip through the small crack to the right to descend. But it should be noted that a sufficiently skilled player can navigate from the bottom right section of the room to the top right crank through that same small crack. In any case, this fight should not last long and the Mageknights should be able to proceed fairly quickly (this particular section was analyzed above as a densely populated room, so it favors Mageknights).

Act0Connection1

The connections between gate points are meant to be short bits of navigation, long enough to release a little bit of tension but short enough to not release too much. This connection in particular uses several conjoined corridors leaning towards bended, sparse environment blocks, so it’s meant to be beneficial for Mavericks. However, they will not have as much of a home base advantage at this gate point than they did at the previous one. Even though this area falls under the general category of corridor/bend/sparse, it is small enough and the walls are thin enough that Mageknights can still use the environment to their advantage.

Most notably, the checkpoints in this area are placed to be a little more punishing. Earlier, a character could respawn and jump back into the fray almost instantly thanks to its close respawn point. However, if a character is killed in this connection, they are sent back to the beginning. Admittedly, this is still a distance that can be covered in seconds by an experienced player, but if a character manages to get a kill on an enemy, they can expect to take home base advantage on the next gate point. On that same topic, the checkpoint up at the top of this connection is the checkpoint that feeds into the combat area in front of the gate, which is a slightly longer distance to the action than the previous gate checkpoint was.

ACT0GATE2

This gate combat area is a strange mix of sparse parallel environment blocks in a vaguely corridor-like room. The two vertical blocks in the center are obtrusive and block Maverick lines of sight, but the room is open enough that Mavericks can grapple freely. At nearly every point in the room, a Maverick can reliably defend at least two cranks, and with clever positioning a Maverick can hold chokepoints on all three. On the other hand, Mageknights can use the two vertical blocks to avoid fire and quickly switch their attention to a different crank if necessary, but once they are at a crank they are vulnerable to enemy fire.

ACT0CONNECTION2

The connection from gate 2 to gate 3 starts to lean more towards Mageknights with a heavily parallelized area right before the combat zone. Still, it counterbalances this with a more forgiving checkpoint and a few bends for Mavericks to grapple onto to speed through the bottom zone. This is a chance for Mageknights to eke out an advantage before going into the third gate battle area.

ACT0GATE3

The final gate favors Mavericks immensely, and Mageknights are meant to have a difficult time. Not only can Mavericks grapple with impunity, they also have clear line of sight everywhere in the whole corridor. Mageknights will have to dodge fire with no cover while simultaneously activating the cranks. Even though the checkpoint for this gate is relatively unforgiving, the area is designed so that Mavericks can jump back into the fray much more quickly than Mageknights can.

Act 01: Reach The Delivery Point

 

DELIVERY01

Act 01: Mageknights and Mavericks need to race to the house at the end.

Here, the Mageknights have escaped from the tunnels and are now racing across the city. The Mavericks need to catch up to them before they manage to deliver the package.

In Act 01, the Mageknights have escaped from the mines and are now en route to deliver their package, with the Mavericks hot on their trail. Functionally, this seems similar to Act 0 in that both groups are traveling to a location. However, the fundamental difference is the Maverick’s objective. Previously, their objective was not necessarily to reach the end of the mines: their objective was to prevent Mageknights from doing so. Thus, Mavericks in Act 0 were more defensively-oriented and had to focus on gates and chokepoints rather than mobility. Now, both sides are in an all-out race to get to the end.

As discussed much further above regarding rubberband catchup mechanics, racing games do many things to enhance their experience that simply cannot be done in Transcend. There are threeprimary concepts used to enhance racing in Act 01: pseudogates, Mageknight advantages, and forgiving checkpoints. A pseudogate is a part of the level designed to throttle and funnel incoming characters, acting as a chokepoint or a strategic location. These pseudogates extend a character’s threat range and are meant to encourage combat as well as racing. Mageknight advantages are walls thin enough for Mageknights to teleport through, and often serve a dual purpose of blocking Maverick grapples from having clear lines of sight across long distances. Finally, there are many more checkpoints in Act 01 than there were in Act 0, so a character who has been killed does not automatically become a loser: there are still opportunities for them to catch up and take the lead.

ACT01PART1

The first area opens up with a casual corridor. Even though the low ceiling provides plenty of opportunities for Maverick grapples, the jutting protrusion acts as a buffer to force Mavericks to take one of the two red paths in the center (likely, the top one). On the other hand, the bottom path is more easily accessible to Mageknights and gives them safety from enemy gunfire. When the two paths converge, they forge a minor pseudogate which can either be used for attack or navigated around entirely: Mavericks can swing diagonally up above the outcropping, and Mageknights can teleport through.

ACT01PART2

The next piece of Act 01 is a functional extension of the previous one, but in a more vertical fashion. We see many similar patterns: the splitting path reforming into a minor pseudogate, an opportunity to teleport through along the rightmost wall, and dividers to protect players from attacks. While the previous part was decently tilted towards Mageknights, this part provides the same gameplay dynamics in a setting that’s similar, but slightly more favorable to Mavericks.

ACT01PART3

This is the first major pseudogate and tilts heavily towards Mageknights. The area can be blocked out as two corridors, one large vertical corridor and a smaller horizontal corridor in the bottom right, each densely packed with parallel level geometry. Furthermore, Mageknights have many opportunities to teleport straight down through the center of the vertical corridor, although the edges along the walls are too thick for them. By the time they reach this point, Mavericks are expected to be decently far ahead of Mageknights due to favorable level conditions, so this area is an equalizer to put them both back on the same page.

ACT01PART4

While previous sections of Act 01 were described with terms such as “funnel” and “chokepoint”, this section is meant to be a pure speedway, much like a straight section of road in a car racing game. However, this area functionally branches off into two separate straights, one for Mageknights (bottom path) and one for Mavericks (upper path). The upper path has uncharacteristically clear ceilings, which means Mavericks can grapple up and continue using their momentum to swing forward. On the other hand, the bottom path is very clearly sectioned off for Mageknights because they are simply inaccessible to Mavericks: you must teleport to access them. On a whole, this area is meant to be a return to isolated mobility and movement, as a sharp juxtaposition against the previous area which forced players into claustrophobic corridors and encouraged combat engagements.

ACT01PART5

Finally, the act culminates in a return to Mageknight-centric corridors and obtrusive outcroppings against Mavericks. Neither side can simply speed through the area straight to the delivery point, because they are funneled through the narrow corridor which makes them vulnerable to attacks. Even though the area seems to at first favor Mageknights heavily, it still provides opportunities for skilled Mavericks to thread the needle with precise swinging.

Act 01x: Marketplace Deathmatch

 

DELIVERY01X

Act 01x: Mageknights and Mavericks fight to the death.

Regardless of whether the game goes into Act 011 (Mageknights successfully deliver the package) or Act 012 (Mavericks successfully control the house first), the game will go into deathmatch in the same map. The mines are sealed off, so the combat area encompasses the whole marketplace seen in Act 01.

Act 01x does not change level geometry except in one specific instance. The Mageknight-only passages open up so that anyone can pass through, to prevent Mageknights from simply teleporting inside and camping out the act’s duration. In fact, these areas become extremely advantageous for Mavericks, because they are tight corridors with no opportunities to teleport out. The only way out is through.

ACT01XPASSAGES

The other major change is that checkpoints are reworked to be more scarce and spread out, and also face the other way. Mageknights and Mavericks will want to relocate to areas that are better suited for their individual talents, so the level plays out in reverse.

Act 02: Seal The Illegal Entryways

 

DELIVERY02

Act 02: Mavericks need to destroy the illegal tunnels, and Mageknights need to stop them. Illegal tunnels are small solid grey boxes denoted with red text.

In Act 02, the Mavericks have successfully kept the Mageknights inside the mines, and now need to seal off the illegal entryways that the Mageknights have been using to sneak inside. This is the transition that makes the most structural level changes to the same area, making the mines even more tilted towards Mageknights.

I commonly use a technique that I call stilting in Act 02. This is the process of taking a preexisting level element and shifting part of it slightly, as if splitting it in half and offsetting the other half. Stilting in general will increase the amount of area that a level element will block line of sight for, and makes teleporting through the thinner blocks easier. This also represents the innate structural changes of the mines and how they crumble as a result of the battle.

ACT02STILT

Here we can see two pieces of level geometry stilted to various degrees. The parallel block to the lower left is only stilted slightly, whereas the bent block to the upper right is stilted to such a degree that it blocks off a path that was once accessible. Contrast this to the same location in Act 0, where the same pieces existed in the same positions but in a much neater, unstilted fashion.

ACT02GATE1

Additionally, all of the gates close off and the cranks become inaccessible. This represents how the Mavericks have forced a state of lockdown in the area, but it obviously means that the same paths are now completely blocked off. To compensate, alternative paths around the gates have opened up as the mines collapse, which allow characters to move through the same areas. In this specific case, the new path that opens up also creates a wall that’s barely thin enough for Mageknights to teleport through.

The three points that that the Mavericks need to seal off are placed in reverse order through the level, so Mavericks need to backtrack from the third gate to the first. Each of these three points scales from favoring Mageknights down to favoring Mavericks. Even though this act is meant to be a catchup mechanism for Mageknights, their advantage comes largely from the crumbling environment and the new paths opened to them rather than the specific objectives they need to defend. It is easier for Mavericks to seal off an illegal entryway in Act 02 than it was for Mageknights to open a gate in Act 0. Mageknights primarily need to focus on preventing Mavericks from getting to those points in the first place.

ACT02ENTRYWAY1

The first illegal entryway is where the checkpoint for the third gate was in Act 0. This one is meant to go to the Mavericks relatively quickly and have the game move on from there. Each subsequent entryway becomes exponentially farther than the last, and also provides even more opportunities for Mageknights to find new paths and shortcuts inaccessible to Mavericks. For this one, however, there is not meant to be much that the Mageknights can do to stop the Mavericks. Note the additional stilting of the level elements in the following room, which serve the purpose of providing cover for characters as they move onto the next area, as a stark contrast to this room’s previous focus on combat engagements in Act 0.

ACT02ENTRYWAY2

The second illegal entryway is at the end of the room where the second gate was. This entryway is characterized by a strong chokepoint with a sharp corner where Mageknights can get the upper hand on Mavericks trying to pass through. Again, the focus is less on the Maverick’s objective itself and more on the journey to get there, which is filled with haphazard outcroppings that make good thin cover for Mageknights but impede Maverick progress.

ACT02CAVE

This area represents the most radical change in the mine environment, where the entryway to a whole cave crumbles open in the area below the first gate. The whole section is filled with densely packed parallels, giving Mageknights a significant advantage to hold off Maverick progress. Even if the Mavericks make it through, they enter back into the room that was in front of the first gate in Act 0, which is made even better for Mageknights thanks to tilting.

ACT02ENTRYWAY3

Finally, Act 02 ends with a slight harkening back to the initial Mageknight tutorial area. Mavericks are unfamiliar with the space, but it still presents long, easy corridors for them to grapple through. Mageknights can eke out small positional advantages with the two outcroppings, but they will need plenty of effort to stop a Maverick victory if they’ve been pushed this far.

Act 02x: Underground Deathmatch

 

DELIVERY02X

Act 02x: Mageknights and Mavericks fight to the death.

Regardless of who succeeds, both sides now need to secure the area. They fight in a deathmatch along the upper right portion of the map.

Much like Act 01x, Act 02x doesn’t change much from Act 02. All of the entryways become closed off and inaccessible to anyone, and the whole mine area opens up as a combat arena. No level elements change, but checkpoints are placed much more sparsely and point in the opposite direction (the same direction that the characters were going in Act 0).

Conclusion

Whew. That was a lot.

Through it all, the absolute saddest thing about this design concept is that it did not happen and will never happen. When this project was still in school as Transcend, it faced major production issues, and we ultimately had to drop the whole entire feature. And now that this game has been rebranded as Mark of Mephisto, I can’t use anyone’s work except for my own, and other people did contribute to the development of these level designs (even if only slightly). In the future, I hope to design a completely new scenario using the things I learned from this one, but that still doesn’t change the fact that all of this work gets thrown out in the process.

And ultimately, the real problem is that I’ll never be able to learn how well the design came out. I had many fears about the race section and whether or not it would feel the way I wanted it to. Pretty much every single racing game ever will have you going around the track multiple times, but thanks to the game’s unique narrative structure, that wasn’t exactly possible for me.

Still, I learned a lot from doing this. I think that the main takeaway is that you need to nail down your character controls really, really well before you start building levels. The characters in this game have such unique movement that I could write whole blog posts about how much I iterated on them until they were perfect. Build sandboxes first, make your characters exactly the way you want them, and then lock the characters down before starting on level design. Balance is tricky enough without having to worry about environment advantages.

 

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